Smart industry technologies have such potential that it’s easy to get carried away with ideas of what might be possible. For example, in these days of all-pervasive artificial intelligence (AI), it’s tempting to imagine all your smart data sources and action-taking systems might somehow coalesce into something much more sophisticated.
For example, it could become a fast-track last-minute ordering system, with machine intelligence taking care of everything from ordering the raw materials through to firing off ChatGPT-generated emails asking workers to pull night shifts to get orders out of the door.
Yet the notion isn’t as fanciful as you might think. Not long ago, a company in the fashion industry that found smartening up its systems did indeed allow them to start offering next-day services – at a healthy surcharge.
The project relied largely on using scripted smartness to connect high-level components, including a web-based ordering page, a company email server, an SMS gateway, and a smart dispatch and delivery platform.
Businesses should always be thinking about their next metamorphosis: we used to call that being “agile”, but nowadays it’s just common sense. Your core business isn’t going to go away overnight – and be realistic about the future. Think big, however, and the opportunities are there to be reaped.
What are the principles of smart industry?
We’re not talking about the smartness of an organization as a whole, but rather about the tools and processes that make the business tick.
For many established companies – especially traditional brick-and-mortar ones – there are limited opportunities to expand: you can’t double the output of an aluminum smelter on a whim. Smarter technology can help you to do what you’re already doing more effectively and economically.
For example, how much has your energy bill risen in the last year? Probably a lot. By applying the kind of basic metering and power management controls commonly found in home automation products, you can make significant savings. Now imagine what you could achieve if you were to apply that principle to your whole portfolio of capital assets.
Not only can smart industry help to reduce costs, however, but instrumentation and automation let you collect data you didn’t previously have – and we don’t need to spell out how valuable that can be.
Conversely, some companies already generate a mass of data; their problem is sifting out useful data from irrelevant information. A smart monitoring system puts key information front and center. There are process improvements to be made too. Smart tools help systems work together efficiently, without wasting time and energy waiting on one another. They can even enable new avenues of business.
How can you implement the principles of smart industry in your business?
There’s no need to rearchitect all your processes on day one. Most businesses will start by focusing on areas where a small investment will make the most impact. Source a few low-cost sensors and actuators, deploy them in a couple of not-too-disruptive waves, and gain progressively more information and control over your operations.
There are certainly suppliers out there who’ll encourage you to spend freely for uncertain returns. This may be partly a philosophical position – consultants like me love to challenge the sort of practically-minded manufacturing folk who prefer to turn on a roof extractor fan by yanking on a 30-foot-long chain, rather than by pulling out their smartphone and calling up the management interface.
While wholly distrusting smart industry vendors isn’t advised, it’s still important to remain wary. Even if your objectives are tightly focused, you could end up hitching some integral part of your business to a SaaS platform that leaves you at the mercy of the developer’s priorities and pricing.
In truth, it can be pretty easy to start getting smart on your own, with things like basic power management systems, or extractor fans that trigger only when a great puff of steam rises from one of your vats. Seed a few nano-computers and controllers across your factory floor, set up some straightforward interfaces, and perhaps then you can start to think about what specialists have to offer.